Tales of Plea Deals: Part 2 – Michael Cohen

Meanwhile on Thursday, November 29, 2018, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen entered another guilty plea for lying to Congress about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. First, Cohen told Congress that negotiations to build the tower ceased in January 2016 and wasn’t extensively discussed with others in the Trump Organization. But he now admits these talks continued into to at least June 2016, well into the presidential campaign and after Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s nominee. He also admitted to speaking with Trump about the project more than 3 times. Second, Cohen said “never agreed” to travel to Russia in connection with the Moscow project and “never considered” asking Trump to travel for it. In reality, he considered a Russia trip and taking Trump with him. He also asked a senior campaign official about the possibility of Trump going to Russia. Third, Cohen told Congress “did not recall any Russian government response or contact about the Moscow Project.” However, Russian officials did call back. In fact, around January 14, 2016, Cohen sent an email seeking help on the tower deal to Putin press secretary and trusted adviser, Dimitri Peskov. Later, Cohen and Peskov’s assistant had a 20-minute chat on the phone. There were also plans to give the building’s $50 million penthouse to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The news that Michael Cohen is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe is significant but not exactly surprising. Since he’s been signaling that he’s planned to do so for months. While he’s already pleaded guilty to separate charges in August. The big surprise is that Mueller’s new charge against Cohen focuses so heavily on his lying to Congress about a project to build Trump Tower in Moscow. Now Donald Trump has wanted to build or at least put his own name on a luxury tower in Russia since 1987. His latest effort came in 2015, when he and Russia-born businessman Felix Sater worked their Russian contacts in attempts to make a deal happen. On October 28 of that year (the same day as the third GOP primary debate), Trump signed a letter of intent allowing Michael Cohen to negotiate the licensing deal with the Russians. Ultimately, the deal fell through and the project never broke ground. Trump Tower Moscow has been the focus of several news reports about the Russia scandal. But it hasn’t been mentioned in any of Mueller’s charges so far. Now Cohen has admitted to lying to conceal how serious the Trump Tower Moscow project was. In fact, it reveals that Trump’s business tried to work with the Russian government on a major real estate deal while he was running for president. In addition, Trump knew of it while hiding it from the public eye.

Specifically, Michael Cohen now admits that the Moscow Trump Tower project was still active late into the presidential campaign. And that he often briefed Donald Trump and the Trump family about it. For the first time, Cohen revealed he had a detailed phone conversation with an assistant for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, in which he asked the Russian government’s help moving the project forward. He tried to conceal all this from Congress. Not that revealing it would’ve mattered since the whole Congressional investigation into the Russia and the Trump campaign was a sham since it was headed by a member of Trump’s transition team. Nonetheless, whether there’s more to the story isn’t yet clear. While the Cohen plea deal reveals new information, it raises more questions whether more charges will come on Trump Tower Moscow and whether Cohen will provide damaging information on other matters as well.

Nevertheless, Michael Cohen’s plea deal for lying to Congress doesn’t just indicate that he lied about the Trump Organization’s attempt to get a real estate project off the ground in Russia. It also shows that the Kremlin helped in the cover-up. In August 2017, Dimitri Peskov confirmed ton receiving an email from Cohen in January 2016. Cohen’s email asked for help with a development project in Russia. Peskov denied responding to Cohen’s query, saying “This email said that a certain Russian company together with certain individuals is pursuing the goal of building a skyscraper in the ‘Moscow City’ district, but things aren’t going well and they asked for help with some advice on moving this project forward. But since, I repeat again, we do not react to such business topics — this is not our work — we left it unanswered.” At the time, Peskov’s account seemed to match Cohen’s. After all, Cohen told CNN his message to Pesokv was “an email that went unanswered that was solely regarding a real estate deal and nothing more.” He told the same story to Congress during his sworn testimony.

But according to a new plea agreement Michael Cohen agreed to, it turns out that Cohen and Dimitri Peskov lied. In reality, Cohen received an email from Peskov’s personal assistant, which led to a string of phone calls. But as Donald Trump’s Russian contacts came under increased scrutiny, Cohen and the Kremlin decided to lie about it, pretending they never successfully connected. Nonetheless, this episode illustrates one way the Kremlin has blackmail material on Donald Trump. Lying to Congress is a criminal offense. While the Kremlin knew for over a year that what Trump’s lawyer and personal fixer told Congress wasn’t true. Cohen also knew that Russia knew this and could’ve exposed lies if it wanted to. Still, we’re not sure why the Russian government covered up this lie.

Michael Cohen has also implicated Donald Trump directly in the campaign finance violations he pleaded guilty to back in August. As New York prosecutors’ documents reveal, “Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump. Recently, Cohen’s lawyers told the judge his case that much of the former fixer’s misconduct stemmed from a “fierce loyalty” to his boss. Since August, Cohen sat for several interviews for Robert Mueller.

However, according to sentencing memos Mueller and the Southern District of New York filed, Cohen wasn’t as initially cooperative or forthcoming as his legal team has led us to believe. According to Mueller, Cohen “repeated many of his prior false statements” about pursuing a Trump Tower in Moscow when he first met with the special counsel. It was only after Southern District of New York prosecutors charged him and made him face a prison sentence that Cohen decided to cooperate and admit that he previously lied to the special counsel. As Mueller writes, “Starting with his second meeting, the defendant has accepted responsibility not only for his false statements concerning the Moscow Project, but also his broader efforts through public statements and testimony before Congress to minimize his role in, and what he knew about, contacts between the Company and Russian interests during the course of the campaign.” From then onward, he went to “significant lengths to assist the Special Counsel’s investigation.” This included several meetings in the special counsel’s office, some of which were, “lengthy.”

In the meantime, New York prosecutors are unimpressed with Michael Cohen’s cooperation so far. They requested Judge William Pauley to “impose a substantial term of imprisonment” for Cohen, despite his previous requests for “extraordinary leniency.” Prosecutors claimed that “the crimes committed by Cohen were more serious than his submission allows and were marked by a pattern of deception that permeated his professional life.” They characterized Cohen as motivated by greed and “a desire to build his own power.” Taken alone, the prosecutors concluded, “these are each serious crimes worthy of meaningful punishment. Taken together, these offenses reveal a man who knowingly sought to undermine core institutions of our democracy.” Robert Mueller’s team agreed so Cohen received a 3-year prison sentence. New York prosecutors were particularly pissed at Michael Cohen’s efforts to silence at least 2 women about their alleged affairs with Donald Trump just before the 2016 election. As they wrote, “Cohen’s commission of two campaign finance crimes on the eve of the 2016 election for President of the United States struck a blow to one of the core goals of the federal campaign finance laws: transparency. While many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks, or found any number of other legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows. He did so by orchestrating secret and illegal payments to silence two women who otherwise would have made public their alleged extramarital affairs” with Trump. “In the process,” they wrote, “Cohen deceived the voting public by hiding alleged facts that he believed would have had a substantial effect on the Election.”

But why would Robert Mueller trust Michael Cohen? After all, Cohen has a history of deception. Not to mention, he already lied to Mueller before. Yet, the special counsel writes that the former Trump attorney’s information, “has been credible and consistent with other evidence obtained in the SCO’s ongoing investigation.” He then added that Cohen “has taken care not to overstate his knowledge or the role of others in the conduct under investigation.” So he doesn’t think that Cohen is trying to throw anyone under the bus without any good reason. More specifically, Mueller claims that Cohen’s assistance has been “useful” about the following 4 subjects:

  • Cohen’s own contacts with “Russian interests” in the Trump campaign, including on Trump Tower Moscow.
  • “Certain discrete Russia-related matters” that are “core” to the Mueller investigation. Mueller is tantalizingly vague here, but he claims that Cohen knew about these things due to “his regular contact” with Trump Organization executives during the 2016 campaign.
  • His contacts with “persons connected to the White House” in 2017 and 2018. (This could be about Mueller’s investigation into obstruction of justice. But he remains vague.)
  • The “circumstances” around how Cohen prepared and circulated his “response to the congressional inquiries.” (This seems to refer to how Cohen made up his false story to Congress and who else was involved or at least knew about it.)

Thus, Michael Cohen talked about Russia, the Trump Organization, the Trump White House, and how he dealt with congressional Republican investigations. Robert Mueller found all of this “useful.” But we don’t know further details.

But now that Michael Cohen is cooperating with Robert Mueller, it’s not just Donald Trump who may currently be in legal danger. It’s also his family members whom Cohen admitted to briefing on the Trump Tower Moscow deal in 2016. According to Mueller, Cohen discussed the Moscow deal with Trump’s family members “within” the Trump Organization. Last year, Donald Trump Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was “peripherally aware” of the Moscow deal in 2016 (yeah right). Trump recently claimed that he was free to pursue business deals while running for president. But he never publicly disclosed the deal. While Cohen’s guilty plea shows how he lied in a written statement to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to conceal the Trump Organization’s ongoing involvement in in the Moscow project from January through June 2016, with the Trump campaign well underway.

The Moscow project wasn’t revealed until August 2017, when the New York Times obtained emails between Michael Cohen and Felix Sater. Sater had previously scooped up deals between 2005 and 2006. In the 2015 emails to Cohen, he boasted about his ties to Vladimir Putin and told the fixer that he could get “all of Putins team to buy in” on the Moscow deal. He wrote, “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.” Now that Robert Mueller’s sentencing memo is out, we know that Trump Tower Moscow could’ve made “hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources” for the Trump Organization. So this was a very serious project and a very big deal. And according to Mueller, Cohen also “explained financial aspects of the deal that would have made it highly lucrative for the Company and himself.” Not to mention, Donald Trump was very much involved with the deal while he was running for president.

Another interesting disclosure is that Donald Trump and Michael Cohen supposedly talked about meeting Vladimir Putin quite soon after the former started running for president. In September 2015, Cohen appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio show, claiming that “there’s a better than likely chance Trump may even meet with Putin when he comes here” for the UN General Assembly. Cohen later stated that this was a spontaneous idea he had. Except it wasn’t according to Robert Mueller’s memo. In fact, Cohen had discussed a Putin meeting with Trump beforehand. As Mueller writes, “He had in fact conferred with [Trump] about contacting the Russian government before reaching out to gauge Russia’s interest in such a meeting.” Thankfully, the UN meeting didn’t come to fruition.

Furthermore, Robert Mueller writes that Michael Cohen provided “information about attempts by other Russian nationals to reach the campaign.” Illustrating this, Mueller describes how “a Russian national” reached out to Cohen in November 2015, and claimed to be a “trusted person” in the Russian Federation who can offer the Trump campaign, “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level.” This person also kept proposing that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet, which could help the Trump Tower Moscow project greatly. According to Buzzfeed, this refers to former Olympic weightlifter Dmitry Klokov who was also in contact with Ivanka. According to Mueller, Cohen didn’t end up working through Klokov. Since he was already working on Trump Tower Moscow with “a different individual” who he thought had “his own connections to the Russian government.” Most likely that would be Felix Sater. Still, what Cohen has to reveal remains to be seen.

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